We treasure our regrets. It ought to make no sense. Sadness causes pain. There have been times when something I wish I hadn’t said or done comes to mind and I wince or, even more embarrassing, groan aloud. Soldiers have regrets for actions committed in the heat of battle. Once unhappy employees regret bridges burned. Loving relationships that turned sour can leave behind a slew of regrets. And yet we cling to our regrets, so much so that they can influence us out of all proportion to any harm we might have done.
What exactly is regret? I count four different ways in which we look back with sadness, all of which we tend to lump together in the word “regret.” But regret is only one of the four.
First there is disappointment. In “Consciousness, Will & Responsibility,” Chris D. Frith, professor of psychology, writes:
We must distinguish between regret and disappointment. Both feelings occur when we discover the outcome of our actions. We are disappointed if the outcome is worse than we expected. We experience regret if we discover that the outcome would have been better if only we had chosen a different action.
I might be disappointed if I did my best but still got a low score on a job entrance exam, say for the city’s police department, but that isn’t regret. Regret would be if I joined the police and later wished I’d applied to the fire department.
Remorse, a third way of looking back with sadness, is unlike both regret and disappointment in that we’re only incidentally involved. In “What’s the Use of Regret?” Gordon Marino writes: “Objectively at least, we can’t regret something we couldn’t help, but we can still feel remorseful because we played an unwitting role.”
An experience of mine on a hospital’s orthopedic ward back in 1992 illustrates the different roles of regret, disappointment and remorse. I shared a room with a man who had attempted suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. He lost a leg and an arm, while his other leg and arm were restrained in traction. Each day his psychiatrist came to see him, and each time the patient demanded to be allowed to die. He rued his suicide attempt not because he’d regained his desire to live, but because he’d failed in his determination to die. That is disappointment. Regret would have been if he’d wished he hadn’t made that attempt.
Separate from the anguish I felt for him, in my own mind I criticized him for having been so selfish as to inflict distress on the driver of the subway train. Logically, the train’s operator couldn’t have felt regret because he had no part in my fellow patient’s decision. He just happened to be the one driving the train. But he surely felt terrible about it. The word for that response is remorse.
Writing about that situation in this way feels cold. Regret, disappointment and remorse are powerful emotions.
Equally powerful is the fourth and last way of looking back with sadness, what I will call frustration: when we recall an event where we tried but couldn’t stop a misfortune for reasons beyond our control.
News first broke of the 9/11 attacks just after my girlfriend left for work. I raced down our apartment building’s stairway to try to stop her from taking the subway to downtown Manhattan, but, a fast walker, she was long gone. Had I caught her in time, I would have saved her from a day of personal trauma, beyond the trauma all New Yorkers experienced that day. There are others around the city who wished they could have summoned back their loved ones, only in their cases the loved ones never returned. Like remorse, failure to catch the person in time wasn’t our fault, but unlike remorse, we tried. It was just that something we couldn’t control got in the way.
Four ways of looking back with sadness. Peace of mind requires that we think through which of them we experience when a certain memory surfaces. Disappointment, when we honestly tried but the result didn’t live up to our expectations, isn’t a cause for guilt. That we were the inadvertent actor in another person’s drama should also be free of feelings of guilt. We’re just as blameless when an insurmountable obstacle frustrates us in our effort to intercede. Excruciating as all three experiences can be, there is no moral culpability.
Regret needn’t be associated with guilt, but of the four experiences of looking back with sadness, it’s the only one that can objectively carry that burden.
Regret can be for Robert Frost’s road not taken, as we usually interpret that phrase. But I think it’s more often, and more tensely, about how our actions and words have affected others.
True, we often confuse regret with one or other of the three remaining sources of sad memories. “If only” is one of the most poignant phrases in the language. But it’s like the gambler who tells himself he’d meant to play the eight before changing his mind and placing his bet on the seven. He could be disappointed if eight wins, but he has no grounds for regret. Regret is about meaningful choices.
Even the best of us can be plagued by regret. I remember my good-natured, hard-working grandmother, inspiration for her sons and grandchildren, telling me she kept busy because she didn’t want to “think.” She could have meant any number of things by “think,” including fear of approaching death or anxiety about the meaning of life. But I understood her to mean regret. What reason could such an admirable person have had to regret anything? She’s long since gone, and so I’ll never know.
Can we overcome regret? Two steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program call for making amends. But, as rehabilitation organizations acknowledge, it isn’t always possible or wise. One distinction they make is between an act of restoration, such as giving back money borrowed long ago and never repaid, and indulging conscience, such as bursting out with an apology for an affair to a spouse who previously knew nothing about it. Such a confession might only wound the spouse. That is hardly making amends.
We connect with someone not just out of compatibility of character and personality, but also because of the circumstances and stage in life in which we both find ourselves. I may regret having treated someone badly twenty, thirty or forty years ago, but what if I called that person out of the blue? I’ve changed as the decades pile up, and so has that person. They might even have forgotten. More likely, they’ve consigned the memory to some perhaps unpleasant but manageable place. When we consider calling to explain, we might well realize there is no explanation that can satisfy anyone except possibly ourselves. We must resign ourselves to the verdict we assume they’ve rendered.
In other cases, we suspect our explanation might already have occurred to the other person. It’s either satisfactory or still unacceptable, but either way, so long after the event, it might no longer matter.
Then what is to be achieved by dredging up that memory? Offering an explanation can be worth the effort and awkwardness if it brings closure, meaning emotional resolution. But we must make every effort to ensure the exercise isn’t purely selfish.
We also change due to changed circumstances. For example, the mistakes we make when we have little or no money can be different from those we make when we are financially better off. When our income is barely enough to cover expenses, we might feel bad for skimping on a tip to a waiter, while in more comfortable circumstances, we might feel bad for miscalculating a tip and giving something less than we’d intended. A tipping example might seem trivial, but it’s about how we show appreciation. We all look back over the years and wish we’d shown more appreciation for a long-ago teacher, a boss, an assistant, a friend, a lover. At the time we hadn’t understood just how much the person meant to us.
Beyond whether we can overcome regret, do we really want to? We may be made up of neurons, muscles, bones and the rest of physiology, and we may define ourselves to the outside world by our clothes and other externals, but what is hardest to take away until the very end is our memories, especially distant ones. They become so much a part of us that we know ourselves by them. They are familiar, and familiarity brings warmth. Even memories filled with regret become part of us, even if they also bring sorrow.
The decisions we make every day help define us, and little defines us more starkly than those we regret. By making a decision, we favor one course of action over one or more others. Thus, to reflect on our mistakes is to deepen our understanding of ourselves. Regret can show us who we were and how far, or little, we’ve come.
True, there are those who seem to know no shame, while others feel so wronged themselves that they cannot conceive they might also have done wrong. But for most people, regret is inescapable. That is as it should be. A life without regret is a life not lived. It’s a corollary of Socrates’ maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Near the end of his article cited above (conflating regret with remorse), Gordon Marino writes:
Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse.
None of this is to sanction doing something in order to have something to regret. Regret cannot be manufactured. Nor can regret be an excuse for moral failure. It isn’t only physicians who should take the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. More than that, we should actively do what we can to bring about good. Also, regret doesn’t negate the place of punishment. There are actions for which people deserve to suffer.
On the other hand, regret can have too great an influence. Writing an autobiographical piece some time ago, I tried to incorporate an incident that causes me a potent mixture of regret and resentment. A writer friend who read the draft urged me to take it out; not because it was embarrassing to read, but because it wasn’t relevant to the story. He was right. The event had distracted me from the subject of that piece and weakened it.
In a similar vein, regret can lead us to make wrong decisions out of a desire never to repeat what was a mistake in one context but might not be in others. Complimenting a colleague’s appearance in the office can have a very different effect from doing so at a party. The one can bring about regret, the other pleasure.
Regret does deepen us, but it can go too deep. Each of us is more than the acts and words that cause us regret. They need perspective. Accepting common wisdom, we should put them in a bag that we tie to a tree at day’s end. Let regret add to our wisdom, but let it not take over. And let the attachment we might feel to our regrets not become morbid.